Sunday, April 30, 2006

A Thinkling Hits A Nail on the Head

Over at Thinklings, De has given a full-length blog piece to a passing comment many of us have made from time to time: Must we Christians be always at each others' throats? Read his thoughts on Christian brotherhood.

Imagine (in your mind, queue up music to "Imagine") ...

Imagine Christendom where those who are best at serving the needy could serve the needy without being told they are neglecting preaching.

Imagine Christendom where those who are best at preaching the good news could preach the good news without being told they are neglecting the needy.

Imagine a body of Christ where the hand did not say to the foot, "I do not need you."

Imagine those of different gifts serving as a team.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Christ: Our Covenant with God

Sometimes it is said that Christ made a covenant with God, or brought a covenant with God. But if we want to be more precise, Scripture says Christ does more than merely bring a covenant with God; it says that he himself is the covenant with God. Consider what Isaiah says of the Messiah:
I, the LORD, have called you in righteousness; I will take hold of your hand. I will keep you and will make you to be a covenant for the people and a light for the Gentiles. (Isaiah 42:6)
And again
I will keep you and will make you to be a covenant for the people (Isaiah 49:8)
When the covenant with Israel was made at the time of the exodus from Egypt, Moses then took the blood, sprinkled it on the people and said, "This is the blood of the covenant that the LORD has made with you" (Exodus 24:8)

It is an odd thing to our modern minds, but in the books of Moses, sprinkling with blood was a traditional sign of being cleansed, being sanctified, and in the case of the whole people being sprinkled, a sign of the covenant with the LORD. This ties back to Isaiah's prophecy of the suffering servant, "so shall he sprinkle many nations" (Isaiah 52:15). The covenant is now for all nations.

Jesus made known the new covenant the night he was betrayed, saying, "This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins." (Matthew 26:28). The covenant is a binding agreement, where God has promised with blood that he will keep his word. His word to which he has bound himself is this: our forgiveness.

Index for systematic theology series

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Christ: The Author of Faith

Faith, in the Scriptures, usually means trust. Consider that the Bible, in the most famous of the New Testament's passages on faith, explains faith in this way: "Through faith also Sarah herself received strength to conceive even though she was past the age, because she judged Him faithful who had promised." (Hebrews 11:11) Faith is simply this: our recognition that God is faithful towards us. To recognize that God is faithful towards us is to trust God; we expect his mercy and trust his promises. Paul explains time and again that trusting God's promise has always been the true direction of faith, even from the time of Abraham: "Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness" (Romans 4:3, Galatians 3:6).

But trusting God's faithfulness does not come from ourselves. It comes from God's faithfulness, through our awareness of God's faithfulness. It is "from faith to faith" -- from God's faithfulness to our faith in him. Knowing that God is faithful does not come from observing the world and our troubles in it. Neither does faith come from refusing to observe the world and our troubles in it. Our trust in God cries out for God to make good on our troubles, to redeem us and restore this world. Apart from knowing that God is faithful, we do not actually trust God. Unless God genuinely is faithful, trust in him is worthless. Unless God keeps his promises, there is no point at all in believing them.

Christ is the fulfillment of God's promises. In Christ, we see healing and newness of life given to those whom he meets. In Christ, we see others spared suffering and death, given forgiveness and redemption, while Christ instead suffers and dies. We see resurrection from the dead. We see the hope of mankind. When Christ is present, we see the evils in the world being undone. When Christ is present, we see the beginning of the new creation, the one that redeems the old. When we know Christ, we see that God is faithful towards us. Faith in God is created by our encounter with Christ. It is a simple thing to increase our faith: "Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith." (Hebrews 12:2) Christ himself is the author of our faith; our trust in God comes from him and through him and because of him.

Again, this has implications for our evangelism. For the message of Christ itself has the power to create faith. We proclaim God's faithfulness in Christ. Those who understand God's faithfulness now have faith in him, since that is what faith is. "So then faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word of Christ." (Romans 10:17)

Faith in God through Christ is also the beginning of a transformation within us. It is the death of our trust in our own efforts, the death of our ideas of ourselves as our own gods. It is the rebirth of hope, of love. It is the beginning of the new creation inside us, as it is said, Christ in us is the hope of glory.

Index for systematic theology series

Saturday, April 22, 2006

Christ: The Power of God for Salvation

I am not ashamed of the good news, for it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes. (Romans 1:16)
God, whom I serve with my whole heart in preaching the good news of his son (Romans 1:9)
Simply put, Jesus is the gospel. Those who say "God is the gospel" are reasonably close to the mark, since in Jesus all the fullness of the godhead dwells. But in God, without reference to Christ, there is much hidden that we do not know, while in Christ these things are revealed. In Christ we see God's goodness. Those followers of Christ who first took the good news throughout the world did not teach primarily about God in all his hidden mystery, which was a given; they particularly preached the power of God in Christ Jesus. This is the gospel, the good news. The four books in the Bible which bear the name "gospel" are the accounts of Christ's life.

We have not understood the power of God if we recognize that God helps us through Christ but still locate the power behind our salvation somewhere else besides Christ -- such as in our own decision, or in some hidden decree of God that elects people for Christ rather than through Christ. The good news -- the hearer's encounter with Christ -- is itself the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes. The power of God for salvation comes in Christ and through Christ, not from ourselves, not through some separate grace.

This has implications for our evangelism. God has not sent us out empty-handed and powerless to draw people to him. But the power is in the message of Christ, not in our clever words, not in our reasoning and not in our emotions. When we rely on clever words and human arguments and our own efforts, we get small results and even those are bad ones. Paul, in his evangelism, insisted he was sent "to preach the good news -- not with words of human wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power" (I Cor. 1:17). Because Paul's cleverness could not win people to Christ, only to Paul. Paul's cleverness could only divide the church if he built on it and put his weight on it. Soon enough and even without his wishing it, some followed Paul and some Peter and some Apollos -- instead of Christ. Paul was frustrated; "Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Were you baptized into the name of Paul?" (I Cor. 1:13)

Understanding the good news fully, Paul "resolved to know nothing except Jesus Christ, and him crucified." (I Cor. 2:2). There is power in the message of Christ, God's power for salvation. When we preach Christ as Paul did, through our words people see Christ and encounter Christ. It is the purpose of our evangelism to bring a person to encounter Christ, or to bring Christ, through our message, to that person. God has chosen to transform our hearts through Christ, to give the Holy Spirit through Christ, to bring us to repentance and new life through Christ. Before Christ came, God's will was a mystery, but "he made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ, to be put into efect when the times will have reached their fulfillment -- to bring all things in heaven and on earth together under one head, even Christ" (Ephesians 1:9-10) Therefore we put aside our own cleverness and leadership, our own wisdom and power, and proclaim Christ.

Index for systematic theology series

Monday, April 17, 2006

Blog Break: Mom Back In Hospital

Hi there

My mother is back in the hospital. It's her heart. Her health is fragile these days. I'll be taking a blog break until she's out. I'd like to hope she'll be out at some point this week but that's really more than I know for sure just now.

Take care & God bless, & see you all around.

Update 4/22/2006
So Mom is out on a weekend pass, more or less. She's back to the hospital next week for at least one, possibly two surgeries. The second one is fairly risky; if we don't get to it next week, then the week after that. Prayers are appreciated. Meanwhile, she's enjoying the weekend.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

The Encounter With Christ

Mankind, apart from God, still has a god; it is most often ourselves. In that state, we may still believe in God, but this "god" caters to our will. We speak for him. We use him to authorize our own thoughts and condone our own behavior, and to insist that others do the same. The pious may use their god as a self-help program. The civic-minded may use their god to ensure social order. The greedy may use their god to help them get money. But this sock-puppet god does not satisfy us; we can use him but we cannot worship him. He approves of us, but then again we always knew he would. He gives us no true judgment, no real assurance. A sock puppet seems to be no threat to us. He may condemn other people -- the very same people we condemn -- and this can be very satisfying; this god becomes a stick with which to beat our enemies, and a justification for doing so. But such a god rarely condemns those who hold him in their hands, those who speak for him. (That may be a rough test for a sock-puppet god, whether he is more interested in the sins of your enemies than he is in anyone else's sins; whether he ever challenges you to examine your own.) In such a state we are without true knowledge of God, without true fear of God, without true love of God. And not knowing God, not knowing of his love or his power, we distrust him. Some come to hate him. Some see the blasphemous game in all its ugliness and imagine that all gods are man-made, a polite pretense for deifying our own egos.

Christ startles us out of this. He makes us think about ourselves, and others, and justice -- and mercy -- in new ways. He makes us hunger and thirst for righteousness. He makes us long to be peacemakers, yearn to be pure in heart. He makes us ready to feed the hungry and to seek the lonely. He arouses longing for the kingdom of heaven and the renewal of all things. He makes possible honesty about our sins because, in his forgiveness, our sin will be forgiven. It startles us to hear wrongdoing -- even our own -- honestly and unapologetically condemned. But then we never really trusted the assurances that we were fine exactly as we were, with our apathy and enmity, self-centeredness and spite. Finally we have solid ground on which to stand, words we can trust, judgments that are true. He sounds nothing like the religious people of the other type, those who use God to justify themselves. When we encounter Christ we know we have encountered the Word of God.

He startles us by more than just teaching. He fixes things that we thought were beyond hope: the blind see, the crippled are made whole, the paralytic walks, the deaf man hears. He even raises the dead. This is God's answer as to whether these things are ultimately how he wants the world; when he sees its brokenness, he heals and restores. He multiplies this until the whole countryside has noticed.

He startles us by more than just healing, more than even compassion. He enters knowingly, willingly, into a city where the religious leaders have been making public announcements against him. Somehow, it figured that it would be the "religious" people who opposed him. They had announced they were bringing charges against him that carried the death penalty (see the Talmud). And in those days, the Jewish people had limited authority to perform their own executions, so the execution would be the uniquely slow and brutal Roman execution of crucifixion. Death. It's what makes all of us, sooner or later, only a memory, or a record with nobody to remember. If you have ever walked away from a gravesite where you have left a loved one behind, you know what is behind the words of the creeds, the words of the gospels: dead and buried. That's where hope ends. That's where "the meaning of life" becomes a thing of the past.

Most people thought the women were talking nonsense on the third day, with their wild stories of an empty tomb and a vision of angels who said he had risen. They didn't really believe them -- until they saw Christ. Even then some of them who had seen him, had talked with him, had eaten with him -- even then some had trouble believing their eyes. It simply was not possible. Death itself was overcome. To be sure he had raised others from the dead -- but only for a few more years of mortal life. This resurrection of Christ was new. He was no longer subject to death. Before he died, he had predicted his death -- and his disciples, in typical interpretive fashion, asked themselves what "rising from the dead" might mean. Now they saw what he meant, what he had promised, what the redemption of mankind would be in its fulfillment not just for him but for them, and the implications for all mankind.

Grace is first and foremost this: the encounter with Christ. Grace has to do with relationship, with the other's favor. God's grace -- his favor towards us -- comes through Christ. It is the encounter with Christ that changes us, and God's grace comes through this encounter. Apologetics and argument does not bring grace; it changes nobody. Evangelism is the proclamation of Christ, bringing to others Christ that they may encounter him. When Christ is there, when his words are spoken, when he is made known, the grace of God is there. The grace of God does not come some other way; it comes through Christ.

Index for systematic theology series

Sunday, April 09, 2006

I'm honored ... right?

I'm honored by the receipt of an Aardie award. First requirement is that you're humble and have a sense of humor, or at least that you could be persuaded to be humble and have a sense of humor if only someone awarded you a golden aardvark. Gotta love it. Anyway, if you like the kinds of things I write here, there's a lot more over at The Aardie's: Growing Fame or Fool's Gold. (But I thought growing fame was a species of fool's gold ...)

Why the Wages of Sin is Death

Once evil had entered the world, it spread quickly and deeply. The crown of God's creation, the creature in the image of God, had set up himself as his own idol in place of God.

If the world is to reflect God's glory and goodness, the evil in it must be destroyed. But the evil lies inside mankind, in our self-worship. So to destroy the evil, the simplest solution is to destroy us, both body and soul. Our spirits were breathed into us by God; our spirits die without fellowship with him. As long as we remain our own idols, we have no fellowhip with God. Our death, both body and spirit, became inevitable.

On some level, mankind understood the corruption in ourselves. The system of blood sacrifice for sin became a part of religion in many places, recognizing the justice of linking evil and death -- yet held out hope that some substitute might be found for us. And in his goodness God had still not abandoned us.

But the idea of substitution held out a problem: if the one who sins is not the one who dies, how is the evil destroyed? And the continuation of sin held out another problem: will goodness itself ever be fully restored? Will there ever be a creation without the stain of evil? A new creation is in order for the sake of God's goodness. But a new creation raises its own question: what becomes of God's faithfulness to his former creation?

God showed his wisdom, his faithfulness, his goodness, and his love: he purposed to redeem his creation, restoring us to fellowship with him, destroying the evil in us and re-creating us in his image. He purposed to breathe his spirit into us again. In this, he remained faithful to his former creation by not purposing to replace us with another creation who had never known sin, but instead by taking us sinful creatures and recreating us as our own selves, renewed.

Index for systematic theology series

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

The Image of God and the Fall of Man

If God made all things good, where does evil come from? This post focuses specifically on mankind's intentional evil, the plain evidence that mankind is not now thoroughly good. And if mankind is not now thoroughly good, how can we assert that mankind was created good?

As we saw when discussing goodness, the primitive natural things have some sign of God's goodness in them. They stir some memory of God or longing for him. Light reminds us of God; so do water and mountains and stars. But none of these things can fully reveal the glory of God. They are bound by their natures to certain courses; they have no direction except what necessity requires of them. They do not govern themselves. Stars and tides and things which thoughtlessly follow their courses have a beauty and cause no disruption. But they have no thought, no wisdom, no love, no desire to increase the good beyond themselves, no ability to lay a course other than that laid down for them.

Mankind, instead, is in the image of God. We were created with the capacity for thought and wisdom and love. Mankind alone is gifted with the management of the world, to govern himself, even to govern some of God's own creations placed under his care. A creature in the image of God carries great possibilities and great risks. There is great possibility in wisdom and love and the desire to increase the good. When we see a great artist, or scientist, or athlete, or a humble farmer who does great things with the land, we can only begin to imagine a world in which all people had lived out the possibilities of the image of God. At the same time fellowship becomes possible, a bond that we enjoy in the company of others of common purpose. But along with the great possibility there is also great risk. There is risk that mankind might make himself his own god, might try to force all things to love him and serve him and conform to his own image, might reverse right and wrong at every point. This is a possibility not because God desires evil, but because he desires such a great good as a creature in his own image.

Some would say that God created mankind with no freedom, but has bound us to a specific course by necessity of nature and decree. But being bound by necessity is not fully consistent with the image of God we are said to bear. Neither does it match the view given us in the Scriptures, which show God implementing his lordship in a way that still leaves room for our sub-lordship. A creature in the image of God will govern himself and govern what is within his stewardship. Still, mankind's direction now is not entirely free to turn back to God, not because God desires man to fall away, but because man does not fully desire to return. Scripture shows that mankind's turn away from God to enthrone ourselves in God's place has left us in a natural state where we now run from God and hide, and make excuses and pass blame, and justify ourselves at the expense of others. We are bound to do these things lest our god -- namely, ourselves -- should be dethroned. And so we have exalted ourselves at the cost of true glory as the crown of creation, and did not ourselves desire to regain the true image of God at the expense of being humbled.

Index for systematic theology series

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

The Goodness of God and the Goodness of Creation

That All Things Were Created Good
The beginning of any account of our redemption must consider God's goodness. All things, we are told, were created good. Our main difficulties in believing this are the reality of death and the evil done by mankind; each of these will be discussed in more detail going forward. Still, for what we see in creation, our basic impression is that God is good. When we look at the stars or the sea we have no difficulty believing that God is good; we have difficulty believing he could be otherwise. The world is filled with things that evoke awe and wonder, things that stir up images of paradise in our minds and call out that this world itself is, or was, paradise. Each thing of beauty is a reminder of heaven, showing a facet of the mind of the maker, drawing us toward him. Each thing God creates has some mark of him. This goodness of God and its reflection in creation is the basis of the experienced goodness of life as well as the basis for the understanding of good and evil.

If this were the whole of it, if everything in our lives called out to us "God is good", the questions about evil would never have been asked. The next post discusses the image of God and the fall of man; the one after that focuses on death. The remainder of this post is addressed to a closely related subject, the "best of all possible worlds" views of creation which are popular in some circles. My main aims in the following section are to return to a view of creation that is directly rooted in Scripture's discussion of creation, and to review how God implements his lordship in this world without revoking the gift he gave us at creation, our sub-lordship within the boundaries he has established.

The Best of All Possible Worlds?
(Again, unless you have a particular interest in the "Best of All Possible Worlds" theories, you may want to just skip to the next post on the image of God and the fall of man.)

Every now and then I hear arguments whether this world is the best of all possible worlds. These arguments usually assume first that all actual happenings in this world were specifically decreed by God and desired by God; and second that God, in his act of creation, chose one set of possibilities above all other sets of possibilities as the best set of possibilities for this world. As with so many speculative theologies, we may ask, "Where has God made that known to us?" and "How would someone know whether or not that were true?"

But this variety of "best worlds" argument has some problems beyond its speculation. It supposes a world which was, at the outset, compromised with evil. But in the account of the world's creation -- regardless of whether you take it as literal or symbolic -- there still remains the fact that the world is said to be very good in every way. Where is there a hint that this world was already directed towards all the evil which has since come? And where is a thing which God would have done differently to create another of these "possible worlds"? If all actual events were decreed by God at creation, then each specific thing -- for example, the fact that my parents had two children, or my mother's parents also had two children -- this is supposed to be decreed at the creation of the world. But what was it that God did in creation that ordained how many children my ancestors would have? What, in the act of the world's creation, would have been different if God had desired for my mother to have three children instead of two? Would the sun have been made differently? Would the plants have reproduced differently? Would the days and nights have been established differently to cause my ancestors, or yours, to behave differently? What, in the act of creation, determined or decreed any of that?

All of that is just by way of pointing out one thing: the view that all actual events were decreed by God at the time of creation is unsupported by anything in the account of creation. From that account it seems more likely, and logically it is more straightforward, that this world itself contained all those possibilities within it at its beginning. This would imply that, rather than God decreeing each specific action in the world at the foundation of the world, that he decreed the range of possibilities and fixed the boundaries within which our actions would take place. This would imply that God gave his consent to any outcome within that range, rather than specifically decreeing which outcome must occur, for many things in this world. For instance, in the account of Job, we do not see that God decreed for Job's children to be killed by a collapsing building; but he did consent to catastrophes befalling Job up to a certain limit. Again in other places in Scripture we see God enacting his lordship over this world not by decreeing each specific action for others, but by decreeing the limits within which he will allow others to act. In various places, the Bible describes God's relationship to his people as a landlord to his tenants or a wealthy man to his stewards, where God is not said to decree each action that the tenants or stewards do, but to lay out the boundaries of what they may do. In this way God's action at the larger level determines many things and sets the boundaries for all things, but he has still left stewardship, responsibility, and some participation in the actual results in mankind's hands. Within the boundaries he has set, our actions make a genuine difference.

At this point some theological camps would still deny that mankind has any latitude in his actions based on God's foreknowledge of our actions, and that all things happen only because God desires exactly that to happen. The basic premise is that God cannot change. If, they say, God's knowledge of what we do changes, then God himself changes. Therefore, they say, God's knowledge does not change and therefore, they say, mankind's latitude to direct himself is an illusion not a reality. While it is doubtful that a change in God's knowledge, rather than a change in God Himself, was meant when it was said that God does not change, even this is likely beside the point. God can know what we do for all eternity, and still not have decreed it, if that is his choice. If he is omnipotent and omniscient, then he has the power to allow room within boundaries for us and still have full knowledge of what we will do. The question is not what God can do, for most of us will allow that God can do all things which are not self-contradictory; the question is what God has chosen to do. We have been told that God made us in his image, and in Scripture we are shown a number of situations in which God is said to set limits for the actions of others rather than make specific decrees for those actions.

How Much Freedom?
Other schools of theology would make room for mankind to participate in our own salvation, and not only by living it out or working it out, but even at the point when we are still enemies of God. But this is getting ahead of myself, and the next point to cover is what happened to mankind.

Index for systematic theology series

Monday, April 03, 2006

The Love of God in Christ

I've been participating in some discussions on systematic theology and ordered lists of salvation. It is easy to nitpick someone else's systematic theology, but also unfair to offer only criticisms but no new construction. So over the next few posts, I will sketch out a basic systematic theology. The question I have for myself -- and not for the first time -- is what kind of fool would undertake such a monumental task with the limits that I have? And the answer has not changed much: that the size of the task and my limits are plenty of cause for humility, cause which I would always do well to take seriously. It is one thing to begin with humility, but another to use humility as an excuse for not learning and doing what I can. So I have sketched out a very basic systematic theology and hope to contribute more to the conversation than only criticism.

The Fall and The Need for Redemption
The goodness of God and the goodness of creation
The image of God and the fall of man
Why the wages of sin is death

The love of God in our redemption
The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ and the Fellowship of the Holy Spirit
The Encounter With Christ
Christ: The Power of God for Salvation
Christ: The Author of Faith
Christ: Our Covenant with God
Christ and the Worship of God
Christ and the New Creation within Us
Christ: The Foundation of Baptism
The fellowship of the Holy Spirit

Related Posts (not part of original series)
The stumbling block of the average systematic theology
On the atonement
Does the Athanasian Creed contain a mistake?
God's eternal decrees: The missing decree
Why the true systematic theology must be Christ
The cornerstone of systematic theology
Chosen in Christ
The problem with systematic theology
Ordered list of salvation
Grace and Election founded on Christ
Christ's role in every spiritual blessing
Sacrifice: Death and Redemption
VA Weekly: The Atonement
Omnipotence, Weakness, and the Cross of Christ
Original Sin?
Martin Luther and the Kaiser's Wife (on arguing with Scripture)
Understanding Scripture: Basic standards of interpretation
Comparative Religion: Beginning with Truth and Goodness
Across religions and cultures: Jesus as the shape of hope

One question still needs asking: Do we really need a new systematic theology? I do not know that very much of what I say is genuinely new; on a topic like this I would not even want to say something without precedent. Still, many popular systematic theologies hold such a small place for Christ, or have such a weak doctrine of creation, that it is difficult to be satisfied that they do justice to God. Some people have given up on theology altogether because its spirit has been so far from the spirit of Christ. And in the interest of fairness, it remains for me to make a contribution. May I make it prayerfully.